Strange times bring great opportunities for learning.
You’ve probably learned a lot in the past couple of weeks about disease spread and prevention.
You’ve probably learned how to wash your hands. (We’re all just now learning how to wash our hands. What a wonder! So many songs you can sing while you wash. My kids have chosen “Baby Shark.” Lord, in your mercy …)
We’re learning to stay home when we’re sick. (Just imagine if some of these new habits stick …)
We’re learning new ways to interact. Italians are singing from their windows and terraces. Churches are working out live streaming.
We’re learning to adapt, sometimes with humility. Many church leaders started last week with the bold claim that we never cancel worship services and ended the week … canceling worship services.
It has been a brutal week for anyone responsible for bringing groups of people together in any way.
Many of these pieces of learning we couldn’t avoid. At least not if we wanted to be responsible citizens.
We also have other opportunities for learning––ones that involve others’ decisions instead of our own. Those opportunities begin with choosing charity and curiosity before we choose assumptions and blame.
Let’s be honest about this. In recent times, as a whole, our nation has not done well with charity and curiosity before assumptions and blame.
A comparison to a time long ago: The last time we had such wide-spread concern and significant cancellations was after the 9/11 attacks. Our President’s approval rating then skyrocketed to 92%. Just 10 months earlier, the majority of our nation had voted against him. It’s difficult to imagine any scenario in which a President’s approval rating could hit 92% in today’s atmosphere.[note]That’s not with just this President. It’s with any President you could imagine us having. But also … it’s especially unfathomable with this President.[/note] Many more than 8% of us––on all political sides––default to assumption and blame.
I’ve learned about myself that I tend to misjudge situations that aren’t my own. From the outside, I tend to assume the situation is what I see on the surface. But when I talk to the people involved, without fail, they introduce complexities I hadn’t considered and sometimes entirely change my view of the situation.
A “Sinful Woman”
A good example of charity and assumptions comes from last Sunday’s lectionary gospel text. In John 4, we read about Jesus’ conversation with a Samaritan woman at a well. Jesus has supernatural insight about her life: “You have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband.”
Throughout my life, I’ve had and heard one interpretation of this text––this is a “sinful woman.” She jumps from one man to the next. Five marriages. She hasn’t even bothered to marry the current one. She really should be living differently. How awkward to be confronted on this by someone who claims to be Messiah.
We celebrate Jesus’ charity in choosing to speak with a woman like this.
• She’s a Samaritan. That should be enough to prevent him speaking to her. Jews and Samaritans don’t speak. The resentment runs about as strong as any ethnic resentments you might think of today.
• She’s a woman. That also should be enough to prevent the conversation. Strike two.
• And she’s an adulteress. Major strike three.
No wonder she comes at high noon to the well, a time when she won’t encounter other women. Any good Jewish man, certainly a Jewish Rabbi, would keep his distance. But Jesus doesn’t.
Despite Jesus’ example, I wonder if we’ve been assuming the worst of this woman ever since. We assume she should be living differently, but a woman in this day would have very little choice about a divorce. Why has she had five husbands? It’s likely that leaving these relationships wasn’t her decision––the husbands would have made that call. Or they died. The decision to be with each next man? Maybe a decision for survival, maybe a decision she didn’t control as much as we assume. Whatever it is, the fact that this woman has had five husbands is almost certainly a point of deep shame or sorrow.
We hear this text according to our values and norms and we call this woman a “sinful woman.” But if we hear it according to the values and norms of her culture, we might see her as someone we’d pity, someone who has lived a hard life, someone avoiding the others in her society because of her shame. Could she be a “sinful woman” who has made several bad choices? Yes. But we know far too little to say.
Charity, Assumptions, COVID-19
The current national and global crisis gives us a lot of opportunity to learn about others. With every new conversation I have, I learn about a new complexity someone is dealing with as normal life is disrupted.
I’m especially involved in a lot of conversations with small business owners and pastors. Here are the challenges I’ve watched those groups face over the past week.
Small business owners
The #1 concern from every one I’ve talked to is how to keep the business afloat and also take care of the employees. On Friday, I talked to the owner of a business with 25 employees––a business that I wrongly thought wouldn’t see too much impact. Already, he was agonizing over layoffs. “If I quit paying these people, most of them are in immediate financial trouble. If I keep paying them, I don’t know how long our business can survive.”
Most people have responded with an encouraging amount of charity. Some have responded with shoulds. The businesses should quit being greedy and keep paying their employees. Those have been the exceptions. We’ve seen far more charity than shoulds, at least at this level.
The should chain will keep moving upstream, though. There will be calls for utilities companies, landlords, and banks to provide relief by suspending billing. Ultimately, people will call on the federal government to provide the relief. Every step of the way, the next group called upon will have to balance others’ needs with their own health. The utilities and landlords and banks need to stay afloat, too. And the government can’t print money forever.
If we approach this with charity and curiosity, we can expect that most people are trying to do the right thing––not only for themselves, but for the people they feel some kind of responsibility toward. We’ll be slow with the shoulds and quick to understand the delicate balance people are trying to manage. A group of Lexington small business owners had a conference call with our congressman yesterday. His concern and desire to help were evident. But so were the limits to what he’s likely able to do.
Last week many of us agonized over whether to cancel our standard worship services. This week, most of us seem to have accepted that we’ll be cancelling for a while. For some, there was a quick and easy rush to online options. Others went kicking and screaming.
Some of those who went quickly were criticized for giving in to fear, not heeding that passage in Hebrews that tells us to “not give up meeting together.” Some who went kicking and screaming were called selfish––more concerned for themselves than for public health. But I don’t think many of the pastors making these choices were driven by fear or selfishness. Most were making difficult decisions as they tried to manage the balance between being responsible citizens and responsible caretakers.
We believe that the church at worship is the greatest locus of hope in our world. We believe that in the Lord’s Supper we truly encounter Christ, and in that encounter we’re nourished and sustained. We believe that Christ is our hope in times of uncertainty and our solace in times of grief. And we call two things the very Body of Christ in our world––the church[note]Read this as the gathered community of believers, not a building.[/note] and the elements at Eucharist.
So our concern is no mere selfish desire to keep our event going. It’s a concern for the spiritual and emotional care of our people, especially in a time of uncertainty and grief. I’ve talked with several pastors who have a great concern for people’s mental health through this period. Grief + isolation is a dangerous combination. We may be preserving people’s physical health, but we fear the mental health repercussions.
We also believe that bodies matter. We have a responsibility to preserve and protect both our bodies and those around us from unnecessary harm. This is the reason for canceling. We need to. For the sake of our bodies and others’. But it’s also why canceling is so difficult. A move to online worship and prayer gatherings is not the same thing. People continue to gather in the body because it matters.
I’ve shared above about groups I’m connected to and understand best. I’m blessed by the community around me. It’s an incredibly charitable community. Almost no blame, no shoulds without a lot of preceding charity and curiosity.
But I’ve seen others agonize in the past week about what they should do, and agonize even more because of the assumptions and shoulds they’ve heard from the outside. I’m guessing that many of you, in entirely different ways, are dealing with the same. I can’t imagine what it would be like to make decisions right now about a funeral or a wedding scheduled for May. I can’t imagine the difficulty of conversations about schools and childcare as decision-makers consider the risks posed by canceling and the risks posed by not.
We are likely not near the end of this. That will mean a lot of hard decisions for most people. Be charitable. Be curious. Be quick to listen. It’s a great opportunity to learn more about the people around us and the many important values they’re trying to balance. Their situation may not be what we’ve assumed it to be.